Richard III | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Richard III | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the palace, Queen Elizabeth is attempting to cope with news of her husband's failing health. She is attended by her brother, Earl Rivers, and by Lord Grey and the Marquess of Dorset, her sons from a previous marriage. Rivers and Grey urge Elizabeth to put on a brave front to avoid aggravating the king's condition further.

The Duke of Buckingham now enters, accompanied by Lord Stanley. Both men greet the queen, bearing word King Edward seems to be on the mend. Now, Buckingham reports, the king wishes to make peace among his noble subjects—in particular, he is anxious to end the feuding between his own family and the queen's. Richard, who has already received a summons from the king, arrives onstage accompanied by his henchman Lord Hastings. He immediately lashes out at Grey for complaining about him to King Edward, but Queen Elizabeth insists it was the king's idea—no one else's—to call the nobles together.

Elizabeth's attempt to smooth things over backfires: Richard now stops harassing Grey and turns on her instead. He calls her an upstart and accuses her of doling out noble titles and other favors to her own family members. As Queen Elizabeth recoils from this abuse, Queen Margaret—the aged widow of Henry VI—slinks onto the stage and starts muttering curses under her breath. Queen Elizabeth and Richard continue to argue until Margaret, no longer able to keep her angry words to herself, steps forward and calls them a pack of "wrangling pirates" who have pillaged the English crown and now fight over the spoils.

The other characters are none too pleased to see Queen Margaret, who was supposedly banished to France on pain of death. Undaunted by their insults, she turns to them one by one and pronounces a long, prophetic curse on each. Elizabeth, she says, will "outlive [her] glory," just as Margaret has done; Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings will each be "by some unlooked accident cut off." Margaret saves her most vicious curses for Richard, "a murd'rous villain," who, she predicts, will be gnawed by the "worm of conscience" before he is betrayed by his closest allies. Finally, she warns the others to beware of Richard, then slinks back into the shadows.

While Richard, Elizabeth, and the rest are still remarking on Margaret's eccentric behavior, Catesby appears and summons them all to the king's presence. All leave at once except for Richard, who is waiting to speak with the murderers he has hired to kill Clarence. When they arrive, he reminds them not to let Clarence bargain with them, because he "is well-spoken and perhaps / May move your hearts to pity." The murderers assure him they will be quick and pitiless—qualities Richard values in a hired killer.

Analysis

This hefty scene serves two important purposes: it provides a framework for subsequent plot developments, and it helps to set the tone for the remainder of the play. Key to both is Queen Margaret—who, by the way, is the only character to appear in all three Henry VI plays, then survive for an encore appearance in Richard III. A sort of living ghost from England's recent past, Margaret reminds her listeners nobody has escaped the Wars of the Roses unscathed. The losers were, for the most part, killed, but the winners have been morally scarred by their complicity in murder. Richard may be an absolute villain, and Richmond (who hasn't been introduced yet) may qualify as a true hero. Everyone else, however—even the murderers at the end of this scene—exists in a vast gray area where personal allegiances repeatedly clash against principles.

By offering her own emotionally charged version of the events of Henry VI, Part 3, Margaret also helps the audience to understand the network of hatreds, resentments, and fragile alliances in King Edward's court. Particularly instructive is the moment in which Richard and the Woodevilles cease their "wrangling" in order to gang up on Queen Margaret, who taunts them: "What, were you snarling all before I came, / Ready to catch each other by the throat, / And turn you all your hatred now on me?" This dynamic is deeply revealing of their relationship in general: they are united by circumstance and common enemies, rather than by any real bond of love and respect. In Act 2, Scene 1 Richard, the queen, and their respective followers will swear friendship to one another to appease the dying King Edward. Not one of them will be sincere.

Margaret's most notable contribution, however, is her "prophetic" litany of curses against her enemies. The fulfillment of these curses—and the victims' recognition Margaret was right—will be an important structuring device for the events of Acts 2 through 5. The curses come true without exception: Rivers and Grey will be executed in Act 3, Scene 3 followed shortly by Hastings (Act 3, Scene 4). Buckingham, who almost escapes the curse-storm, makes the mistake of sassing Margaret and gets slapped with a malediction of his own; he dies in Act 5 after finally realizing the danger Richard poses. Once the deaths of Richard (Act 5, Scene 5) and the princes in the Tower (Act 4, Scene 3) are added to the tally, it may seem hardly a scene goes by without a murder or execution. By explicitly foreshadowing these deaths, Queen Margaret's curses impose an organizing logic on what might otherwise seem a mere bloodbath.

Margaret also knows how to use wordplay to not only express her fury and sorrow, but to establish her power: she turns whatever phrases are thrown at her back on their speakers, a device Richard himself often uses, as he did in his seduction of Lady Anne. For example, when Rivers tries to put her in her place, saying "Were you well served, you would be taught her duty," Margaret turns his words back on him: "To serve me well, you all should do me duty ... / O, serve me well and teach yourselves that duty!" Margaret also wields a mean metaphor, comparing Richard to a dangerous dog: "Look when he fawns, he bites; and when he bites, / His venom tooth will rankle to the death." Throughout the scene, Margaret's wordplay establishes her as a woman who will not be intimidated and calls things as she sees them. Richard often uses wordplay to obscure the truth from others, while Margaret uses wordplay to uncover it.

Left alone onstage near the end of Scene 3, Richard shares his nefarious plot with the audience. Throughout the play, the audience is granted similar behind-the-scenes knowledge of Richard's plans and motivations through his frequent soliloquies and asides. This creates pervasive dramatic irony: the audience knows, often before many of the characters do, exactly what kind of damage Richard plans to inflict. At the same time, being privy to Richard's secret thoughts and feelings draws the audience close to him, perhaps, at times, even humanizes him, as when he "descants on his deformity." While his actions are decidedly horrifying, it is hard not to be impressed by Richard's ability to manipulate events or by his astounding feats of verbal skill. He is a character who stands in opposition to almost everyone in the play and who is constantly fielding any opposition to his own power. It is therefore appropriate to his circumstances what he says to other characters is often the opposite of what he means. His choice of words reflects this contrary stance, frequently incorporating opposites: "And thus I clothe my naked villainy ... / And seem a saint when most I play the devil."

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